Ōtakou Peninsula hīkoi wānaka
June 30, 2023 | Stories

By Niki Partsch 

Last month a special hīkoi (journey) to significant sites on Muaūpoko, the Ōtākou/Otago Peninsula, took place for hapū members who travelled south from as far away as Christchurch. 

The name Ōtākou comes from a channel running in the lower harbour. This name was later applied to the entire region and became known as Otago. The harbour was and still is, an abundant food source with many fish species and shellfish. Cockles, or tuaki as they are locally known, are in plentiful supply. Consequently, Muaūpoko became home to many kaik (villages) and sustained a significant population. 

Near the end of Muaūpoko, sits the Ōtākou kaik. Here, on a bright sunny June morning, whānau gathered in the carpark opposite the marae to wait for the bus. Today this is the final pick-up point for those attending this hīkoi wānaka, part of the Ōtepoti narrative wānaka series.

Seemingly motionless bodies of water including picturesque inlets and even open drains perfectly reflect their surrounds as the bus travels cautiously along the narrow winding roads. Onboard, whānau heard many pūrākau (stories/legends) about their ancestors from Kaumātua Edward Ellison who also pointed out many locations of significance. 

Our first stop was Ōkia Reserve, a place where, “regeneration is the goal, we want to turn it back to its native coverage,” says Edward. Here, blue chested Pūkeko and other birdlife were hunting openly on the salt marsh and seemed at ease with our presence. Energy levels are high as the whānau spread out along the walking track from where the bus had deposited them through the Ōkia flat towards the pyramids.  

For some it is their first time here, including one small whānau who have been absent from the area for seven generations and are the first to come back. For others there are stories about growing up here, running all over the land, riding horses and ranging freely. 

It was near the foot of Te Matai o Ōkia, the smaller of the two pyramids, that Edward shared several pūrākau, including one about about one Kāi Tahu tipuna / ancestor, named Tarewai, a renowned figure in Ōtākou. 

Tarewai had travelled to Ōtākou when Kāti Kurī people had migrated south. There had been fighting here, but during a period of peace Kāti Mamoe lured and entrapped a group of Kāti Kurī including Tarewai. All of them, except Tarewai were killed. Restrained and feigning despair, his captors used his own mere to begin cutting his chest, but he was able to escape to a cave at Hereweka (Harbour Cone). Here he used his knowledge of rongoā (medicine) to heal his wounds and then planned his revenge.

This, and other stories were discussed as the whānau made their way back along a solid track originally built during WWI as part of the war effort.

"[Cliff] helped us to translate our whakapapa, our history here into this pou tokomanawa"—Moana Wesley

The battles of the past seemed long distant against the backdrop of trees and paddocks holding fat sheep overdressed in full woollen coats and teams of slow waddling robust geese enjoying the warmth of the sun.  

Back on the bus, the last stop of the day was at Pukekura, once the site of a large, fortified pā at Taiaroa head. Inside the Visitor Centre stands a mighty pou tokomanawa carved from mataī. The names of ancestors featured in the pūrākau told over the day, come to life in this huge work of art, which encapsulates generations of history. Here whānau could see the carved images of their ancestors beginning with eponymous ancestor Tahupotiki at the apex. 

Some of the whānau who worked on the pou were present. “The people of Ōtakou carved the pou. It was a real whānau, hapū thing,” says Moana Wesley, who worked on the pou under the guidance of esteemed artist Cliff Whiting in 1990. “He helped us to translate our whakapapa, our history here into this pou tokomanawa.” At the time, Cliff was on the Māori Advisory Board of the Historic Places Trust (which later became Heritage New Zealand Pouhere Taonga). 

Before leaving Pukekura, there was time to look down and see the thrashing beauty of the ocean as it meets the giant rockface of the harbour entrance and carves its way into the caves below.  

This hīkoi wānaka was supported through funding from the Heritage New Zealand Pouhere Taonga Mātauranga Māori Contestable Grants Programme. Read more here.

Niki Partsch | Kaitohutohu Whanake - Māori Heritage Advisor
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